Fair and unfair criticisms of Calvinism and Arminianism

Actually, what I have to say here applies to ANY criticism of ANY theology.  We need to distinguish carefully between criticism and misrepresentation.  Fair criticism is valid; misrepresentation in order to criticize (straw man treatment) is invalid and should itself be criticized by everyone.

Reformed theologians especially have long pointed out what they believe to be the “good and necessary consequences” of certain Arminian beliefs.  That’s fine, so long as the critics point out that Arminians themselves DO NOT believe the things they are arguing are good and necessary consequences of the things Arminians do believe.

So, for example, Reformed theologians have often argued that works righteousness (salvation based at least partly on human merit) is a good and necessary consequence of Arminian belief in the necessity of free response to the gospel for salvation.  While I disagree, I accept that as fair criticism SO LONG AS the critic clearly says (in some way) “This is not what Arminians believe; it is what their belief logically entails.”

Now, let me give an example of unfair Reformed criticism of Arminianism.  In the youtube video entitled “Arminianism: The Root of ‘Christian’ Liberalism” the presenters argue that Arminianism makes the inspiration of Scripture impossible because it holds free will in such high esteem that God wouldn’t have been able to control the biblical authors so that they wrote infallibly what he wanted them to write.  This is unfair because classical Arminianism DOES NOT hold that God never over rides free will or controls human beings.  It only holds that God does not decide and render certain who will be saved and who will not be saved.  Arminians only value free will to avoid making God the author of sin; we have no problem saying that God is the author of all the good that we do.

Now, Calvinists such as those who made that video may think Arminianism is inconsistent.  But that doesn’t seem to be their point and their point is based on a gross misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Arminian theology.  They should say “We don’ t understand how Arminians can believe in the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, but they do.  We just think they’re inconsistent.”  That I can handle even if I disagree. But so much criticism on both sides is based on misrepresentations of the other side’s theology.

The only solution to this, as I have argued in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (in the conclusion about rules of engagement) is for both Arminians and Calvinists to stop attributing to the others beliefs they do NOT hold just because they think those beliefs are good and necessary consequences of what they believe.  This is an all-too-common tactic of critics on both sides and it is unfair and even unchristian.

It is perfectly proper for Calvinists to say “Arminians don’t believe that the atonement doesn’t actually save anyone, but we don’t see how they can deny it given what they do believe.  That seems a good and necessary consequence of what they believe.”  Too often, however, that isn’t what Calvinists say.  One leading Calvinist critic of Arminianism says that Arminians “must say” that the atonement only gives people an opportunity to save themselves.  That’s too ambiguous.  He ought to add “But they don’t say that.”

Similarly, Arminians are perfectly fair to say “Calvinists don’t believe that God is the author of sin and evil, but we don’t see how they can deny it given what they do believe.  That seems a good and necessary consequence of what they believe.”  What would be wrong would be for an Arminian (or anyone else) to say “Calvinists believe God is the author of sin and evil.”  Most of them don’t.

My forthcoming book Against Calvinism will probably be judged too harsh and even unfair by some critics, but they need to notice that throughout I make clear that most Calvinists do not hold the beliefs I say are good and necessary consequences of what they do believe.  I am accusing them of inconsistency, not blatant blasphemy or heresy.  Calvinists do the same routinely to Arminians and I have no problem with that.  What I do have a problem with is Calvinists (or others) who claim to know Arminian theology but have never read Arminius or any other leading Arminian theologian and who proceed to criticism Arminianism based on woeful misunderstanding of it while misrepresenting it.

So, to reiterate, we must make a clear distinction between criticism and misrepresentation.  It’s really that simple.  People on both sides of the debate confuse the two.

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  • I’m reminded of my former prof. and thesis adviser, Harold Netland, who wrote a devastating critique of John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis (Netland’s first book, Dissonant Voices). After reading it Hick told Netland that, unlike most evangelicals, Netland had first described Hick’s views fairly and accurately before criticizing them. I’ve tried to hold that up as a model for my own engagement with views with which I disagree.

  • Sean

    This one bugs me. Arminianism is the “root of liberalism.” No, actually Schleiermacher was, or at least the “father” of its Protestant form, and he was Reformed. And there are a whole host of liberal Calvinists out there. Meanwhile, Wesley gets claimed as a “confused Calvinist” or “Reformed at heart” simply because he was otherwise conservative. Nevermind that his magazine was called “The Arminian.”

    Calvinist != conservative, Arminian !=liberal, and for that matter, liberal != evil.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I have pointed this out (about Schleiermacher) many times. He was very Reformed in his view of the sovereignty of God; he just extended it to universalism (without any help from Arminianism!).

      • Scott Arnold

        So, a Calvinist AND Universalist? Finally, some consistency!

  • Hi Dr Olson,

    Thank you for this very helpful way of evaluating the discussion on Arminianism and Calvinism. Look forward to read your book ‘Against Calvinism’.

  • I agree with the analytical method you have outlined. If all parties used that approach, then we could get on to dealing with issues that are more granular and difficult. For example, exactly what is the nature of “faith”? What about “works”? How does the human mind actually form a belief, and what role does prevenient grace play in that process? Are there events which God wants to control more closely than others?

    Instead, most of the discussion ends up being spent on fending off unjust and inaccurate criticisms. Another big slice of time has to be spent on undoing the definitions Calvinists use that are designed to win the entire argument simply on the basis of controlling the meaning of all the words used. Whew! Makes me tired just blogging about it! 🙂


  • james petticrew

    If Reformed theology is some how an antidote to liberalism and Arminianism a catalyst to it, how come the Church of Scotland, an historic reformed denomination, in a nation where Arminianism has historically had little influence, become as liberal as any other state church?

    • rogereolson

      Good question!

  • I think that most Calvinist misrepresentations of Arminianism come as a result of never having read Arminius or an Arminian theologian. As Matt Pinson has written, Arminius is the best known theologian people have never read.

    On the other hand, I wonder if Calvinists resort to playing the misrepresentation card to introduce a hair-splitting argument which they think will explain away the Arminian assessment of their position.

    For example, Arminians casually say that in Calvinism there is no opportunity for the majority of people to choose to come to Christ. To this, Calvinists reply, “We believe that God allows people to choose–but they can only choose not to believe.”

    To the Calvinist, this hair-splitting distinction (if it can be considered a distinction) looms large, and allows them to cry out with indignation that we Arminians have misrepresented them!

    Of course, to formulate the Arminian accusation precisely, we’d have to say that because in Calvinism God does not enable most people to believe, most people ultimately do not have the choice of coming to drink freely from the water of life.

    I’m entertaining the notion that Calvinists play the misrepresentation card to cover their withdrawal into trickier logical intricacies where their actual theological position is ever so much slippier to get a grip on.

    Jim Leonard
    Arminian Baptist

  • Rob

    I wonder if the resort to misrepresentation indicates that the argument has reached a stalemate that everyone implicitly recognizes even if no one would admit to it. It is hard to imagine someone resorting to distorting the other viewpoint while possessing a good argument that would settle the issue.

  • John Metz

    Roger, unhappily, you have hit the nail on the head again. While I am not a party to the debate you describe, I recognize the modus operandi of the debate as prevailing. What you describe occurs all too frequently in criticisms of the beliefs of others. Perhaps one good rule should be that the criticized party should be able to recognize their beliefs in the criticism. Sadly, far too often misrepresentation carries the day.

  • Tom Montelauro

    If Calvinists say that God ordains “whatsoever comes to pass”, and sin and evil come to pass, then are not Calvinists “saying” that God is the author of sin and evil? Just because they also say the opposite (without retracting the original statement), does not mean that they have not “said”, by implication, that God is the one who brings about (i.e ordains or authors) sin and evil as well anything else that falls into the category of “whatever comes to pass.” Is it “unfair” to state the clear and unmistakeable implications of a person’s statements as what the person has “said”?

    • rogereolson

      The key is “by implication.” My answer is–yes, by implication that is what they are saying. However, no Calvinist I know says God is the author of sin and evil. But I believe that is necessarily implied by what they do say whether they are aware of it or not. Jonathan Edwards faced this head on and admitted that there is a sense in which God is the author of sin and evil, but he proceeded to say God is not guilty of sin or evil because his intentions in foreordaining them were good.

      • Scott Arnold

        Like most (all?) Christians, I suspect Calvinists live in cognitive dissonance. They don’t act like they believe what they say they believe.

        • Tom Montelauro

          You are absolutely correct,Scott. Calvinists do not act as they believe because they cannot do so. No human being can act as though everything he thinks and does in predetermined.

      • Tom Montelauro

        Yes, Edwards was great at kicking the can down the road thinking that he has gotten rid of it. If the difference between the suffering caused by God and that caused by men is that men can do so with an evil intention, then what is the origin of those evil intentions? If God ordains whatever comes to pass, doesn’t that include evil intentions? Don’t Calvinists “say” evil intentions too must come from God. The Calvinist case seems to be logically illustrated in this way: I say, “all cars I own are red”, and I also say, “I own a car”. John tells Fred that I said I own a red car. If for some reason I do not want to admit to Fred that I have a red car, can I validly object that I did not say “I own a red car”? Would anyone defend me by saying that John has been unfair because I only implied, but did not say “I own a red car”?

        • rogereolson

          But what if you say ” I don’t believe I own a red car?” People might question your sanity, but generous folks who knows you to be an honest person will believe you. But then they are well within their rights to say “Tom believes he doesn’t own a red car, but anyone with eyes to see can see that he does.” But let’s go further. Suppose someone challenges you and says “But look–you do own a red car. There it is in your driveway and your name is on the title lying on your kitchen table.” Then you say “Ah, but I don’t REALLY own it; the bank owns it. If you look closely at the title it’s a copy; the bank has the original because it has a lien on the car. So I don’t actually OWN it; the bank does.” Then things get a little more complicated. It comes down to what “own” means in the case of having a car with a lien by a bank. Who actually owns it? In fact, I remember an uncle of mine claiming at a family reunion that he didn’t actually own that bright, shiny new car (that no one else in the family could afford); the bank owned it. However, nobody in the family took him seriously. That, I think, is a better analogy to what is going on in Calvinism’s denials of God as the author of sin and evil. Most people, when the facts are explained to them, will say they make God the author of sin and evil, but Calvinists really believe they don’t. Who’s right? There’s no authority to enforce one view as right. All we can do is appeal to common sense and the normal meanings of words and hope people get it. But I still won’t say “Calvinists say God is the author of sin and evil.” They don’t say that. But in my opinion, they mean it anyway.

  • Dear prof. R. Olson,
    just a question, that I do here because I don’t have any other way to try to submit this idea to you.

    I’ve always been a Arminian and I’ll continue to be an Arminian. However, during this week there was a change of opinion, that introduces me maybe to a even more radical attitude about Calvinism.

    The issue is: I always said that Calvinism is wrong: today I ask to myself if Calvinism does exist.

    And the argument about this issue is double:

    1) Given that compatibilist approach doesn’t work and when for example a preacher like Piper exorts his hearers to perseverance, he fails of inconsistency… is Piper really a calvinist? is it possible to live really as a calvinist?

    that is: is it possible to annihilate the role of own free will as a real agent in the universe? if the answer is “no”, it seems to me that real calvinists don’t exist.

    And this is not strange because real calvinism as universal casual determinism denies the existence of free will just like real skepticism in ancient greek philosophy denies the existence of rational truth, so skepticism and calvinism are just fantastic thoughts that can’t be really applied in human life by a human being having a human, real mind.

    So they are both ideal thoughts that only can be used as reference in theoretical thinking. Nobody can live as a real skeptic or a real calvinist.

    2) Did Bible contemplate, analyze and respond to Calvinism? in my opinion, Calvinism is not denied by the Bible, Calvinism as “unconditional election” simply doesn’t exist in the Bible, because salvation has clear conditions, clear and expressed conditions (faith includes all them).

    Maybe God didn’t think that it was important to prepare a warning in the Bible against Calvinism… because He _foreknew_ ( 😉 ) that real calvinists can’t exist.

    So: I’m beginning to think that Calvinists don’t exist and for example Piper is only an arminian that has confusion in his mind (no intention to be offensive against Piper, my english is poor, I’m an italian brother).

    May you answer what do you think about this approach?

    Your answer, in privacy or publicely, will be appreciated.

    Francesco C.

    • rogereolson

      Interesting. I think all Calvinists I know are inconsistent–which is their salvation (theologically) from turning God into a monster. They think evangelical Arminians are inconsistent–which is our salvation (they say) from making salvation something we must merit and thus denying the gospel itself. Do “pure” Calvinism and Arminianism exist? That’s a good question.

      • Well, is the simmetry strong?

        Arminianism doesn’t have the goal to be “pure”. It is by definition a theological pattern that desires to be balanced among other theological directions (first of all semi-pelagianism and calvinism, but also if it is “dirty” of molinism, that’s not a problem).

        Calvinism is the one that is proud to be “pure” and to have the pure Gospel. But in my opinion, it can’t, because pure calvinism can’t be applied in human spiritual life, in human thought and in bible’s reading.

  • Tom Montelauro

    By your example of who owns the car, the bank or your uncle, you have given another illustration of the same strategy used by Calvinists when they cannot answer objections: they change the meaning of the words used in the debate. In your example the meaning of “own” was changed from practical ownership to “free and clear legal title to”. So, too, the Calvinist changes the word used to designate God’s predetermination of all things to “permits” when if comes to sin and evil, thereby showing that he knows he has a big problem, but does not want to fully admit it. So, I am still inclined to feel you are to easy on them, but I guess you are only trying your best to be more charitable than some of them are.

  • This “Against Straw Man Theology” blog entry deals with the most pervasive error made in both political punditry and theological debate. I concur with your point totally.

    But, as I am reading your 1999 Story of Christian Theology at the moment, I “wonder” if this same tendency wasn’t what was happening back then as well. You refer to the fathers and apologists debunking of the heresies–but then describe aspects of those same fathers and apologists beliefs that nearly mimick Gnosticism.

    So, they appear to have built their own straw man arguments claiming that the heretics “must say” this or that to be consistent. In addition, they fail to acknowledge inconsistencies in their own statements.

    And, in view of your subsequent blog explaining your non-engagement policy towards neo-fundamentalists, it appears that many of the heretics (Pelagius, for one) never really did say what they were accused of. Do we have any record of their own letters expressing the same outrage at the injustice of their attackers–similar to the one you (validly) just wrote?

    • rogereolson

      Most of the heretics’ extant writings are reconstructions from church fathers’ quotations. We can only trust they quoted them correctly. Pelagius, by the way, changed his views often–depending on whom he was talking to. So it’s better to talk about Pelagianism than Pelagius whose “Pelagianism” was inconsistent.

  • Brett

    I’ve just read your book ‘Arminianism: Myths and Realities’ and I’ve been trying to resolve the paradox of God foreknowing our libertarian response to His grace. I’m attracted to a moderate form of Open Theism to resolve it. I think ‘those God foreknew’ in Romans 8:28-32 can be understood coporately, as an abstract noun. I also think resistance to Open Theism in the Church comes firstly from Enlightment-anchored individualism and secondly from a desire we share with horoscope readers, the affective factor of wanting to know our individual life is destined for safety and heaven. But I can’t think why we need a doctrine of perseverance when God is sovereign and He’s taken pains to explain His faithfulness and continuous love. What more security could we need? Perhaps all of us – myself included – have to wean ourselves off needing to believe that God has every detail fixed for us individuality, and ‘grow up’. Since God is sovereign, surely He can be flexible and creative with our unfolding lives as well.